Newspapers "Cater for the Quarter Educated"!

2014-11-15 21:12

A few years ago the Economist had on its Website the question; who killed the Newspaper? The thesis in the article was: The business of selling words to readers and selling readers to advertisers, which has sustained the role of Newspapers in society, is falling apart.

The Economist attributes the killing of the newspaper to the new media that is finding expression on the internet.

While the trend in the study of news and newspapers is by looking at the current predicament of the newspaper and the possibilities afforded by the future, I would like to reflect on the history of the newspaper.

The current modern newspaper as we know it, is heavily pregnant with its past, with its history.

By the middle of the 18th century with illiteracy shrinking across Europe daily newspapers were beginning to appear: the first was The Daily Courant published in London in 1702 and then others followed in Paris and United States of America in 1777.

In 1833 Gordon Bennett published the New York Herald. The publishing of the Herald is significant because it marked the triumph of populism and sensationalism. By 1845 it was the most popular and profitable daily newspaper in the United States. In 1861, it circulated 84,000 copies and called itself "the most largely circulated journal in the world."  Bennett stated that the function of a newspaper "is not to instruct but to startle."

But what was the view of newspapers generally? Many felt what James Balzac once said “All newspapers are hypocritical, lying, murderous; they will kill ideas, systems and flourish on it".

Eugen Weber,  one of the greatest historians of our times, who was professor of History at the University of California Los Angeles, writes in his massive book of more than 1 000 pages; titled A Modern History of Europe, that: "The most impressive and sometimes depressing monument to mass education was the newspapers. Newspapers that wished to sell more than a few thousand copies had to catch the eyes of those whom George Gissing in his New Grub Street (1891) called quarter-educated: “The young men and women who can just read but are incapable of sustaining attention”.

Throughout the 1880s’s newspapers sought a formula that catered to a public which knew how to read but little else. And they found the formula: scandal, rumor, sensuality, trivialities, “revelations” and stolen letters".

Eugen Weber continues: "The name of William Randolph Hearst had come to represent low but profitable journalistic standards: lurid illustrations, glaring headlines, sensationalism, and jingoism. Hearst built up unprecedented sales over a million and a half a day for his New York Journal in 1896.

The same year in London, Alfred Harmsworth’s Daily Mail introduced the same sensational formula and it worked! By 1901 the sales of Daily Mail has risen to a million copies a day. Eugen Weber note that all the stories published "have to catch the attention in a flash". The news were over-dramatized and altered to fit story ideas that publishers and editors thought would sell the most papers and stir the most interest for the public so that news boys could sell more papers on street corners.

So by the end of the 1800 and the opening of the 20th century all what the newspapers amounted to was really about was, as Eugen Weber puts it: "washing machines and sex". People’s desires, needs and cravings were probed in order to find out points of their vulnerability: Half-truths and hyperbole and outright lies.

Eugen Weber concludes: “The press became an industry like any other and, like all other industries, increasingly concentrated under the ownership of powerful financiers or groups. As more and more publications were swallowed or scuttled, variety of opinion notably decreased”.

That is the history of newspapers that the modern newspaper is still pregnant with. What is killing the newspaper is really people's needs for individual expression.


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